The Big Idea: Megan Whalen Turner

Sometimes the Big Ideas for books have their origin in other books, and how those books inspire us when we write our own. For her new book Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner reaches back to a favorite author and how that writer’s big idea laid the groundwork for hers.


Back in the last century, authors only knew what their readers were thinking if their readers sent them fan mail—written on the bodies of dead trees—or if their readers were reviewers for print outlets like the New York Times or Kirkus. And then, around the time my first novel, The Thief, was published, Amazon introduced online reviews and bloggers started putting up posts about what they were reading. Suddenly ordinary people had a voice in a much larger conversation about books.

As a newbie author, I was self-Googling like mad and just before The King of Attolia was published. I found a livejournal site dedicated to my books. I lurked. I did tell them I was lurking, but I knew right from the start that having authors around is a great, wonderful, exciting thing—right up until they make it impossible to have an honest conversation about their books, so I was careful not too lurk too often. In return, I got to watch these smart, funny people pick through everything I’d written and I became more and more convinced that they didn’t need my input, anyway. Everything in my books that I hoped they’d see, they were pointing out to one another. Watching them, I decided I should probably probably keep my mouth shut and leave readers to figure things out for themselves. That’s why when they got around to sending me a community fan letter, I’m afraid that my answer to most of their questions was, “I’m not telling.” Over the years, it’s hardened into a pretty firm policy.

That doesn’t mean I don’t talk about the books, about writing, about what’s hard or easy, or about where my inspiration comes from. I just try not to add information about the stories that’s not already on the page or offer my opinion on what anything in particular means. Sometimes I blow it, because I like to talk too much, but I try not to. Making up your own mind about a story, or sharing stuff with other readers, is the part of the fun of reading.  I never want anything I say to short circuit that process.

This does make writing a Big Idea piece tricky.

Fortunately, our host has a pretty wide definition of what constitutes a Big Idea and even whose Big Idea we need to talk about anyway. So, instead of starting with my book, I’d first like to talk about The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff was a British author. She suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and she wrote the kind of books that she wanted to read during the long hospital stays of her youth. Back then, the boys’ ward had the “boy” books and the girls’ ward had the “girl” books and Sutcliff had to rely on sympathetic nurses to sneak the boys’ books over to her.

In The Eagle of the Ninth, a new centurion comes to Britain with big plans: serve the empire, get his veteran’s pension, and buy back his family’s farm. And then, in his first battle, all his plans go up in smoke. His leg is broken and he has to face the fact that he might walk, but he will never fight again.  Seeking some new purpose for his life, in a journey both physical and psychological, he travels north of Hadrian’s Wall to retrieve the lost Eagle of the Ninth Roman Legion. His new slave, Esca, goes with him and, of course, they both come back free men.

Sometimes when a light bulb comes on in our head, it’s not because we had a Big Idea, it’s because someone else reached in and flipped a switch. When I was about fifteen, Rosemary Sutcliff did that for me. The term “plot armor” hadn’t been invented when I watched Sutcliff destroy a writing convention in her very first chapter. Serious injuries and death were only supposed to happened to red shirts. The Eagle of the Ninth made me wonder for the first time, just who gets to be the main character in stories of heroism and adventure.

I knew that when I wrote Thick as Thieves, I wanted to revisit Sutcliff’s story, and I knew that I wanted to focus on Kamet, the enslaved secretary to Nahuseresh, a prince of the Mede Empire. Kamet is educated, he’s entrusted with the management of his master’s entire household, and he’s ambitious.  He may not see freedom in his future, but he sees power. When an Attolian soldier first offers to help him escape from his master, he laughs it off—until a friend warns him that his master has been poisoned and Kamet will be blamed for the murder.

Initially reluctant, Kamet takes up the Attolian’s offer and flees the Empire. For the soldier, this story is a quest. He’s been given a task by his king and he means to carry it out. For Kamet, the trip is a means to an end, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Attolian king. He has his own agenda and this is his story.

As Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, “The evil one suffered patiently as inevitable seems intolerable as soon as one conceives the idea of escaping from it.”


Thick as Thieves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Tumblr.

16 Comments on “The Big Idea: Megan Whalen Turner”

  1. Thanks for this. The Attolian books had been at the edge of my awareness, and knowing that the author likes Sutcliff moves The Thief to the top of the tbr list.

    Sutcliff often did things that I suspect would be frowned on in young adult publishing industry these days. In The Lantern Bearers, the main character ages to at least his late 30s (maybe early 40s?) over the course of the story, and the point of view doesn’t shift to his teenage son. He has a notably strained relationship with his wife (political marriage, she didn’t get a choice), and Sutcliff doesn’t shy from portraying the painful emotional consequences.

  2. The Eagle of the Ninth! Wow, I haven’t thought of that book in maybe 35 years. I loved it so much that I stole a copy from my elementary school when I moved on to high school. I wonder how well it’ll hold up? I’m going to find it and if revisiting my lost youth isn’t crushingly disappointing I’ll be sure to grab Thick as Thieves as well.

  3. I have been eagerly waiting a new Attolia book (I have read the previous 4 multiple times). I just picked this up on Saturday and I can’t decide whether to devour it now or wait till I feel in need of a special treat.

    I really recommend you start with the The Thief – the characters, their world and mythology are built in layers throughout the books.

  4. YES! I have been waiting for this book with bated breath. I can’t wait.

    Seconding the “start with book 1” recommendation, although I’ve heard some people who started with later books in the series and enjoyed them very well as standalones.

  5. Note that they get more adult as the story progresses (and the characters age).
    #1 – The Thief
    #2 – Queen of Attolia
    #3 – King of Attolia
    #4 – A Conspiracy of Kings
    #5 – Thick as Thieves

  6. I am so, so excited for this book! I was in a bookstore on Friday and was quite pleased to see that The Thief series had been released with fancy new covers so I could recommend them to my YA bookclub without worrying no one would be able to get a hold of a copy. I’m delighted to learn that they have not only been re-released but that there is a fifth one out today!

    I’m someone who read Queen of Attolia first, then went back and read them all in order. I think they work starting with Queen of Attolia but if you don’t want spoilers, you should start with The Thief. The thing I like about the series is that the books work very well as standalone novels. I recommend them to people as “Game of Thrones type political fantasy for teens only you won’t be mad at the author because of cliffhangers and unresolved plot threads.”

  7. Oh, good, I love the earlier Attolia books.

    More than once I’ve thought the servant in a classic tale had a better story than the protagonist. Most strongly in _20,000 Leagues Under the Sea_ ; the narrator is kind of a nebbish, Captain Emo is perhaps best left as a Romantic shadow, but the narrator’s manservant does most of the adventure work and has most of the competence.

  8. Thanks for adding a new series to my TBR list! I loved Rosemary Sutcliff when I was a teen. I read “Sword at Sunset” so many times that the lovely high school librarian gave it to me when I graduated. I’ve carried it around for over40 years now. It, and “The Eagle of the Ninth” both seem to have evaded the Suck Fairy (or maybe I still love them too much to notice her tracks).

  9. I’ve always wondered . . .  How thick are thieves anyway?  You’d think there’d have to be at least a few skinny ones to get through the transom window and the other narrow squeezes . . .

  10. Yuck, this ‘reaching back to previously accredited authors’ – Is it a new publishing gimmick from publishers? (ie rewrite old stuff or at least put them on the publishing blurb as a reinterpretation??)

    I’ve seen it about 7 times now in the last couple of months.

    Lovely Megan, I was interested in the initial premise but having read the initial book (Sutcliff) (as a woman who put her own spin on it at the time) I’d rather see an original book from you than the chance you could slaughter a book I loved before (Not saying you are slaughtering it ). But also I got all the interpretations and where Rosemary was coming from the first time given the time she wrote it in.

    I have to admit I may be more than a little behind the 8 ball here but as someone who seeks out new authors and buys their books, I can’t in good conscience recommend a rewrite or reinterpretation. If you were here on Big Idea with your own idea I would totally give you a run.

    Please be yourself

  11. Zebra, I think you are reading way too much into “author points at an inspiration.” I sincerely doubt that Turner is rewriting The Eagle of the Ninth. I’m only 2 chapters in, but I’ve verified it with someone who has finished the book.

    I would normally not go further on this subject, but I do want to say, the way you chose to express your distaste is leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

  12. Mer. Huh?

    Have you been keeping up in touch with publishing world lately???

    To reiterate what I said above, am a bit ‘how would you be?’ on the whole refer to other authors in reference to your own book. It seems to be an actual thing right now.

    Did you miss the point where I would be happier to read (and buy) the book if she hadn’t referred to Sutcliffe in the first place?

    Happy to admit I may well have articulated my first post poorly.

  13. Zebre, I finished the book last night and it is not at all a “rewrite” of Eagle of the Ninth.

    I’d also like to point out that, your particular tastes about Big Idea formats aside, a lot of readers appreciate having a touchstone from which they can get a general sense of the author’s style and the subgenre they’re writing in, so they know what they’re getting into. Several people in this very thread appear to be in that boat, in fact.

    Also, you may have seen it a lot “in the last 7 months,” but please do know that not everyone you see talking about the similarities of their works to other authors’ is jumping on a bandwagon. The first book in this series, published in 1996, also contains a couple hidden references to Eagle of the Ninth as easter eggs for readers who are familiar with that series, while being nothing like Eagle of the Ninth whatsoever – not in plot, not in characters, not even in tone, I’d argue. If you’re a fan of Rosemary Sutcliff and want to read original stories with a few covert references that pass over the heads of most readers, you might actually really like these books.

  14. “Yuck, this ‘reaching back to previously accredited authors’ – Is it a new publishing gimmick from publishers? (ie rewrite old stuff or at least put them on the publishing blurb as a reinterpretation??)”

    Wow, Zebra, you must have real problems with Shakespeare, ’cause, you know, the whole “rewrote stories other people had written, lifted entire passages” drill.

    MWT, on the other hand, simply borrows the “big idea” of someone whose plans have gone agley and who goes on a journey. Get a grip, sweetie, it’s not like she’s doing a Ladies of Missalonghi/The Blue Castle thing.

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